In recent years, Maine Indian basket makers have been garnering national accolades and attention, and even winning best-in-show awards at prestigious events such as the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico.
The baskets they make are beautiful. Some are in the shape of ears of corn, some feature intricate porcupine quillwork or fragrant braids of sweetgrass. Some are vibrant with color while others are the natural brown and tan shades of the ash splints they are made from. Some are careful homages to the traditions of the past, while others are blazing their way into the future.
But if you wanted to learn more about the artists behind the baskets, you’d have to really dig deep to find information. That’s what David Shultz, the managing director of the Home & Away in Kennebunkport, which specializes in Native American and Inuit art, found out.
“I have tons of reference books for southwestern art. Books on jewelers, potters, basketmakers, Zuni fetish makers,” he said. “But there really has been nothing about the Maine Indian basketmakers.”
Schultz wants to change that, and has just written and self-published “Baskets of Time,” an informative, easy-to-read book that lets others know about the Maine basketmakers who are vibrantly and creatively keeping the tradition alive. In the book, he shares the stories of 17 Wabanaki artists and families, mostly by letting them tell their stories in their own words. Maine’s Wabanaki tribes are the Houlton Band of Maliseet, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation, and all have a tradition of making baskets from the brown ash tree.
The book includes an essay by Gretchen Faulkner, the director of the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum, to explain the historical context of basket making. Maine Indians adapted their traditional, utilitarian baskets to appeal to the European settlers, and by the end of the 19th centuries, were making and selling fancy baskets that featured sweetgrass, aniline dyes and elaborate curlwork.
During the early 1900s, the heyday of basket making, Maine Indians would travel to the lakes and coast to sell their baskets to the state’s summer rusticators. At that time, basket making was a prime occupation for the tribes, with more than 90 percent of the residents of Indian Island listing their occupation as “basket makers.” But the basket economy waned, and by the 1960s fewer and fewer people made their living this way. Because of poverty, adversity, racism and other hardships, by the early 1990s, the tradition of basket making had nearly died out.
But it came back, and by talking to the artists who make baskets today, Schultz found that some themes are consistent across tribes and families. One of those is the importance of going into the forest to gather the ash trees and then knowing how to pound the trees with a blunt, heavy instrument and further process the wood into the thin splints and standards used to make the baskets. Jeremy Frey, a Passamaquoddy basketmaker who has helped to elevate Wabanaki basket making to a nationally-recognized art form, told Schultz about harvesting ash.
“My uncle Moose taught me to harvest ash. I went through the whole apprenticeship process [with him],” Frey said in the book. “[Harvesting ash] is just a great day in the woods, exercise and I know it is the beginning of a basket.”
His wife, Ganessa Frey, a basketmaker from the Penobscot Nation, told Shultz that the sound of ash being pounded resonated with neighbors when they moved to Indian Island a few years ago.
“When I was a kid, all the old-timers pounded ash, and all summer long that’s just what you heard. Now, they’ve all died off, so for years and years and years, there was nobody here that pounded ash,” Ganessa Frey said. “It’s a medicine to a lot of people, the sound of ash … and so when [Jeremy] came, and he pounded, people just went crazy. Nobody called the cops for noise complaint; they all were like, ‘Oh hey, I hear you’re pounding ash,’ and all these little old ladies would come wandering over asking for ash.”
Another theme that emerges in the stories of many of the basket makers profiled in the book is their gratitude towards the older basket makers who took the time to teach them the tradition. Theresa Secord, of the Penobscot Nation, was the founding executive director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. But she did not grow up with the knowledge of how to make baskets. Instead, she was raised in Portland, away from everyday exposure to the Penobscot culture, and studied geology, eventually working for a large oil company in California. Eventually Secord moved to Indian Island, when the Penobscot Nation invited her to head up a mineral assessment program. In 1988, she began studying the Penobscot language with elder Madeline Tomer Shay, the last living person fluent in the language.
“Madeline was determined to teach just one person about baskets; I became ‘the one,’ which was quite an honor,” Secord told Shultz.
In her turn, she has taught weaving to many others, continuing the line of teachers and apprentices into the present.
“It’s quintessential to my well-being as a Penobscot and a culture bearer to be weaving in my historic tradition,” Secord said. “There’s no feeling like it to me.”
Thanks to teachers who have continued the tradition of basket making, it has gone from being something practiced by only a few living tribal elders to once again being a vibrant part of Maine Indian life, Shultz said.
“As Maine basket makers are brought to national attention, it’s taught young basket makers that this is a viable art form,” he said. “It’s helping attract, I hope, more young people to try it.”
The 2017 Maine Indian Basketmakers Holiday Market, featuring many of the basket makers featured in the book, will be held from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9 at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono.
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